There are some big questions waiting to be answered when the Ashes series begins in Cardiff on Wednesday. None, however, will be quite as testing as those posed by the teenage Moeen Ali, as he sat observing life in the food court of Birmingham’s city shopping centre.
Questions of faith and belief. Why are we here and what is our purpose? Who is God? Can a unique Creator have a human face, or a son?
By the time Ali had stopped asking he was on his way to becoming the man we see now. Gentler, softer, still driven in his sport, but beginning to place it in a wider spiritual context. And with a beard. A bushy, long, Muslim growth from the side of his face and chin. The modern Moeen had emerged. ‘A swarthy man in whites, sporting a Taliban beard,’ as The Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown called him.
Ali had not been frequenting the Bull Ring’s food court on the day we met, as it is Ramadan and he is fasting, so not even water, despite playing a Twenty20 match for Worcestershire that evening. He will fast during the Ashes, too, although the travel from his Birmingham home allows him to break the obligation on match days. Ali knows his life choices can appear very other, which is why he will always answer questions on his faith and its motives.
‘I’d never go up to somebody and start preaching,’ he says, ‘but if somebody asks I’m willing to talk about it. Often, after people have seen me praying, they’ll ask and it’s a chance to show how normal prayer time is and why we do it, to teach people about the religion. Not to try to change them, but to explain.
‘I saw the story about the two fans praying at Anfield during a Liverpool game. It caused a big fuss, but it was just five minutes in their life. Once you explain it to people, they are very accommodating. Once your team-mates know, once they understand you and you understand them, everybody gets along.’
Ali often uses his support for Liverpool to break the dressing-room ice, normalising his presence and appearance. His quest beyond cricket is to place what seems foreign, or even threatening to western eyes, in the mainstream. He wants to be the friendly face of that Taliban beard.
‘I know people aren’t sure about men who look like I do,’ he says. ‘People don’t see the beard as a bit of hair. I’ve been shouted at, called some horrible names, and when I first came to Worcester I noticed people crossing the road to avoid me. So, yes, there are a lot of bad Muslims giving us a bad name, but all I would say is that it isn’t just Muslims who need to change. There are a lot of ignorant people, too.
‘I hope what people see in me is that I’m a normal guy, and that people who look as I do can do normal things. And people don’t see us as normal at times. We still chuckle as people do, we still drink a cup of tea, but we feel alienated. I hope I can change that, so even if I can make one person think, “You know, Muslims are all right, they’re good people”, then I’ve done a decent job.’
That is not always as easy as it sounds. On this day, a man later revealed to be Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi had murdered 38 tourists in the Tunisian resort of Port El Kantaoui. Ali had heard the news as he drove from Birmingham, and also its instant depiction as an act of Islamic terrorism. Nine days earlier Dylann Roof had opened fire on the congregation of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina. Roof had widely been described as a madman, not a terrorist.
‘The media portrayal is very bad sometimes,’ said Ali. ‘If there is a shooting and it’s a white guy, he’s mentally ill. If it’s an Asian, he’s a terrorist. The image is frustrating. In Charleston, it was clearly about race but also mental illness. If that was a Muslim guy, it would be about faith and terrorism, with no mention of mental illness, even though the two probably also go together in that case. So, yes, there are Muslims who need to change and behave, but it also feels unfair because the media aren’t always straight about it.’
Later, it was revealed that Yacoubi drank alcohol, was a local break-dancing star and may have used cocaine immediately prior to his attack, making his radicalised self every bit as contradictory as Roof, the devout Christian, white supremacist, mass murderer.
Still. Deep breath and back to the young man with his questions. Ali was born Muslim but did not really class himself as such until an epiphany in his later teenage years. ‘I was just a normal teenager, going out with my friends, enjoying my time. I didn’t really believe in anything, I didn’t fast or pray,’ he says.
‘Through cricket, however, I had many questions. I did a lot of travelling from a young age, got to speak to a lot of people. Whenever I travelled, wherever I went I used to look around at the countryside, look up at the sky, and think, “Someone must have created all of this — it couldn’t happen just by chance”.
‘I was searching for answers. I used to sit in the city on my own, and just watch people go by. That made me really think about those people, and the billions before them. There must be a reason why we are all here. That’s when I started searching and reading into every religion. I was only 18 but I’d had enough of going out, being a teenager. I started to realise a few things, ask deeper questions about life, searching for the truth. I wanted answers.’
Ali’s quest drove him to consider many spiritual paths. ‘I read a lot of books about other faiths and philosophies of life and came back to being a Muslim,’ he continues. ‘When I read about Christianity, I really liked it, but I couldn’t get my head around God having a son, or God being a human being. Without knowing God, I always thought He was unique, and nobody could be like Him.
‘Then one day, I was playing for Warwickshire against West Indies A and I saw a guy I knew in the crowd. He wasn’t a close friend — he is now — but he was a big West Indies fan, from Aston in Birmingham. I knew I had to speak to him. He wasn’t Pakistani or Indian. He was what we call a revert: someone who has converted from another religion. He used to be Christian, now he was Muslim. He had the beard and everything.
‘I just went over and started talking to him. The first question I asked was: Why? Why did he change? I said there were certain things about being a Muslim that I didn’t like. Arranged marriages. That didn’t seem very religious. He told me that those problems were with Pakistani culture, not the Muslim faith — they were different things. I had more questions, and he answered them. Once he started explaining, it all made more sense.
‘There are things we do in our culture that are the opposite of what the religion states. Things my family and cousins followed that I didn’t agree with. When someone died, they would gather around a table and pray over the food. I used to ask why and they would say because the person would come down and see who was praying for them.
‘That didn’t make sense to me. I always believed there was a God who could see everything and hear everything and no other being could have that power. And then we gave that power to people? I now know a lot of that comes from Hinduism, not Islam.
‘I had so many deep questions for this guy, and he would go away and come back with answers. We had a lot of discussions, and then I knew it was the truth.’
The incongruity is that in the single-minded world of elite sport, faith should be a hindrance. The realisation that victory isn’t, after all, a matter of life and death should curb the insane levels of commitment and desire required for success. Ali’s experience suggests the opposite. Understanding the comparative insignificance of his occupation, he says, allowed him to become a better cricketer as well as a good Muslim.
‘My upbringing, everything was always about cricket,’ Ali explains. ‘Wake up, cricket. After school, cricket. Before I go to sleep, cricket. I was trying so hard to be the best I could, obsessing about it all the time and putting everything on it. Then, when I took a step back from it, I became a better player.
‘At first, it almost felt like I had turned my back — but that was when I hit form, became more consistent and got in the England team. I stopped getting too happy when I succeeded and too down when I failed. I achieved a better balance.
‘It took me a bit of time to work out that cricket is just a game somebody has made up. When I die, nobody is going to ask me how many hundreds I got, or how many five-fors. Realising that took the pressure off me completely. If I know I have given everything, then I’m not too fussed about the result.
‘There are times when I look around the dressing-room and if someone is not scoring runs and getting very stressed about it, I do try to help them put it into context — because I used to be like that, too. But there are also times when so much is going on, when people are so into it that I just have to look after myself, step back and see the big picture, which is that this is nothing.
‘If I’m not doing well and beginning to feel uptight that is exactly what I do. Think of the people in other parts of the world who are really struggling, really suffering. That puts me on the right path and actually helps my cricket.
‘The Ashes is such a big thing to everybody else. To me, too, obviously, but I’m trying not to make it so. I’ve got to think of it as just another game of cricket. That’s tough when everybody is talking about it but if I’m going to be successful I can’t get caught up in that. I’ve got to tell myself people make it bigger than it really is.
‘Some people need the pressure to perform better. Stuart Broad has told me the Ashes is different, the media, the scrutiny, the intensity, so obviously I’m prepared for it — but I need to be relaxed.’
The difference in philosophy is perhaps summed up by Ali’s personal definition of greatness in players. ‘Look, Alastair Cook is a really nice guy,’ he says, ‘and, for me, that’s more important than how good a player someone is. I have a lot more respect for good players if they are also good people. When I came to Worcestershire and met Graeme Hick, he was a fantastic player anyway, but his personality made him even better for me.
‘I pray five times a day. That’s my faith. We pray here at Worcestershire. When we’ve had Pakistani players here, we pray together. I’m not scared of praying anywhere. During England games, I pray too. Yet when I first came to Worcester it was a little difficult, because I was 12th man and I didn’t have a spot in the dressing room. I remember Graeme knew me, and knew this was a problem for me, so he moved his bags so I had room to pray.
‘That’s what I mean. He scored so many runs and at such a young age, but the fact he is a good guy is more important. Someone you know isn’t a nice man — you still respect his cricket, but you just think…’
He emits a groan of disapproval. It goes without saying that Ali has no truck with sledging. ‘I don’t say a word,’ he confirms. ‘I don’t feel I need to, it’s not my style. If someone sledges me I do get a bit… not angry, but I want to take them down. Not verbally. I hate swearing. I think it’s something you do as a teenager but then you cut it out as you get older. Obviously, occasionally — but, no, I don’t think it looks good on people when you keep doing it in every sentence.
‘There probably will be a bit against Australia, but I just think you can be aggressive without swearing or getting personal about people. When I was young, from when I first got sledged in club cricket, to rivalries with other families, if someone said something I’d make it my business to respond as a player and, most times, I’d come out on top.
‘I enjoy being in that area. There’s not much sledging in county cricket and it’s not an emotion you can fake, so I’m looking forward to getting in the zone against Australia.’
The clue to Ali’s resolve as a sportsman is perhaps in that aside about familial rivalry. The calm he found later in life was not reflected in his younger years in a fiercely competitive Asian community, with a father who gave up his job as a psychiatric nurse to coach his sons, convinced they would become professional cricketers.
Munir Ali’s brother gave up being a butcher too, working on his protege, and all three boys realised their chosen destiny (Moeen’s brother Kadeer with Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Leicestershire, cousin Kabir with Worcestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire and, briefly, England).
Ali’s schooldays are the stereotypical Asian experience in reverse, education abandoned at 14 to focus solely on sport. ‘Give me two years,’ his father said.
‘I got into the Warwickshire Under 11 team at nine,’ Ali recalled. ‘I was a seam bowler who batted a bit, and had never played with a real ball before. I didn’t have pads so borrowed some from Naqaash Tahir’s brother — and they were probably as big as me. I didn’t have shoes either until my dad borrowed a pair the night before. We always had to grow into our trousers or shirts. They were massive because they had to last a long time. There were three of us from the area in my age group and we wouldn’t have £2 between the two families.
‘I don’t know how we survived for so long really. I used to get 20p to go to school. That was all we could afford. It was a struggle to get to matches — but a good struggle. I’ll never forget those days. They keep you grounded.
‘We shared one car between the two families. It was the worst car ever. We’d hide in the back because we were so embarrassed. All of its doors were different colours, all of the seat stitching had burst. We’d sink down. When Kabir first signed for Worcestershire, we used to leave two hours early to get to games because we had to stop every 15 minutes on the motorway when the car overheated. We’d sit, wait, drive for 15 minutes, stop again.
‘After school we’d go to the park or book a place in the nets through dad’s friends at clubs. And he knew. I don’t know how. He predicted it all. He said I’d play for Warwickshire and then, when I was a county cricketer, he always insisted I would play for England.
‘One time during Ramadan, dad was taking us training and the imam said we should fast and not play because it was so hot. My dad was like, “No, you still have to work. You work and fast”. He ended up giving the imam the ruling instead.’
These days, Munir Ali runs his own cricket academy in Sparkhill, Birmingham. He is sometimes too busy with the next generation to watch his son, although he would no doubt admire Moeen’s work ethic during Ramadan. He can play the Ashes, and fast.
‘It’s amazing what you can do, actually,’ Ali adds. ‘Before you start you think of it as really hard — but once you start it’s definitely not as hard as it sounds. If you’re not doing much you might feel a bit lethargic, but if I’m at the ground, if I’m playing, then it just isn’t difficult. And it’s brilliant for teaching self-control, having discipline, detoxification of your body, after a couple of days you really feel much better.’
He even says he plays better in the month of religious observance. And if he doesn’t? Well, there are bigger things to think about.
The article was originally published in the Daily Mail.